THE Pakistan Navy’s prime responsibility is to safeguard the country’s sea frontier. Its main area of interest thus generally extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline, which constitutes the Exclusive Economic Zone. But then again it is obliged at times to move outside its comfort zone to confront non-traditional threats, a daunting prospect indeed for a modest-sized force.

The importance of this undertaking can best be illustrated by a survey of Pakistan’s potential as an international trading corridor. Its geographical location is significant, with both energy-rich and energy-guzzling countries in its periphery. Lying as it is at the confluence of three main regions, South Asia, Central Asia and Middle East, from which it derives its strategic importance, Pakistan is ideally poised to act as a vital logistics hub for transit trade. Just as it facilitated emperors and invaders, traders and migrants alike in the past, it can now serve as a bridge for the common good.

Despite Pakistan’s huge potential as a transit trade corridor, the lamentable fact is that its realisation is still a distant dream. There are impediments galore, both political and physical. Natural linkages exist with our eastern neighbour along various east-west routes, though direct trading activity is still minimal. Both countries operate road and rail transport within their own territory alone, thereby leading to excessive delays in the trading process owing to the laborious unloading and reloading work involved. Both countries enjoy an inherent advantage in rail transportation by virtue of having a similar size broad gauge rail system which again is not being capitalised upon. Sea trade, by far the most profitable, is carried out indirectly through the Gulf ports. Pakistan is on the verge of conferring the Most Favoured Nation status to India, which, coupled with direct trade between the two countries, would not only drastically reduce transit times but also considerably lower freight charges, thereby ultimately benefitting the consumers.

The physical impediments are tied to regional connectivity, Pakistan being one of the least connected. Rail, which is by far the cheapest and most convenient form of transportation along major trade arteries both within and outside the country, is a picture of neglect and seemingly close to self-destruction. Pakistan’s rail network is presently connected to three neighbouring countries: Iran at Kohi Taftan, India at Wagha and Khokrapar, and Afghanistan at Chaman and Landi Kotal. While Afghanistan is virtually bereft of an inland rail transportation system, the linkage with Iran offers numerous possibilities. Baghdad and Istanbul and beyond to the Middle East and Europe are accessible via the Iranian rail network, the only snag being that goods have to be physically transferred to rail carriages across the Pak-Iran border owing to the different sizes of the railway gauges in use by the two countries. Converting the Quetta line to standard gauge can easily resolve this problem in the long run. Pakistan and China are connected via the Karakoram Highway, which is currently being upgraded from a narrow, and at places dusty road, to a modernistic all-weather highway. Plans to develop a rail connection from Havelian to the Chinese railhead at Kashgar via the Khunjerab Pass, if materialised, would forge regional connectivities up north. Peshawar can also be linked to the Chinese East-West railway network through the Chinese border city of Kashi.

With Iran to its west, Afghanistan towards the north-west, China on the north-east and India to the east, Pakistan is separated from the Tajikistan border to the north by a whisker, the famed narrow strip of Afghan territory known as the Wakhan corridor. It nevertheless provides the land-locked territories of Afghanistan and Central Asian States with the most convenient access to the sea. Pakistan’s southern border fronting the Arabian Sea thus attains the greatest relevance in the context of international trade. Sea transportation, apart from being the cheapest over long distances, also possesses the softest carbon footprint by far.

Despite possessing a large coastline, Pakistan’s international trade was handled by just one port, Karachi, for well nigh thirty years. Built by the British around the mid-nineteenth century to facilitate trade from the Indus Valley region, it flourished primarily through its cotton exports at a time when cotton production in the American South had been adversely impacted by the raging civil war. After a brief lull thereafter, the port became viable again when agricultural output in the Punjab reached peak levels owing to the development of irrigation canals.

Karachi’s status as the coastal gateway to Pakistan came under challenge in the late 1990s by Bin Qasim, a port that had been constructed to meet the needs of the steel mill set up in the vicinity. It now boasts an oil terminal, a chemical terminal, a container terminal and some bulk cargo berths. With both these ports tucked away in the eastern corner, the development of Gwadar Port was meant to generate economic activity on the western seaboard. Though touted as a game changer, it has sadly not lived up to its star billing so far. Let alone acting as a hub port, it is not attracting any ships at all. The development of requisite port infrastructure and hinterland access along with significant invaestment in its Free Trade Zone can spur greater economic activity. Ports these days are no longer simply places where ships are loaded and unloaded. The activities being conducted in a fifth generation port like Rotterdam for example are mind-boggling. Anyway, the potential for improvement and upgradation of our ports is still there.

The Pakistan Navy is charged with protecting the country’s ports as well as its sea-based trade. A number of non-traditional threats on the high seas like maritime terrorism, piracy, gun-running, drugs and human smuggling keep rearing their ugly heads.

In concert with other like-minded and concerned navies, the Pakistan Navy is part of a larger enterprise to curb such activities within its territorial waters as well as in the adjoining international waters. The biennial Aman series of exercises which the Pakistan Navy sponsors in its waters is thus designed to meet a vital need: cementing relations with friendly navies, improving inter-operability and sending out a clear message that we are in it together for as long as it takes to bring tranquillity to a troubled region. Our combined mission: ‘Pacem in Maribus’, Peace on the Ocean.